Edvard Munch and Tracey Emin: (Un)likely Bedfellows
[Warning: The exhibition and, therefore, this review, contain explicit content.]
Review: The Loneliness of the Soul, The Royal Academy of Arts, Virtual Tour, until 28 February 2021
Two artists, separated by 100 years and internationally famous for particularly controversial pieces, have come together in this poignant exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Tracey Emin, It - didnt stop - I didnt stop, 2019.
Edvard Munch, the father of expressionism, is known throughout the world for his most famous works, his four versions of The Scream. The Scream has been part of global culture since the images were created in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Tracey Emin, is best known for her installation piece, My Bed, which she made in 1998. When it was first displayed in the Tate Gallery in 1999, it caused a furore.
Even if you’ve never heard of either artist, you are likely to be familiar with My Bed and The Scream.
In this exhibition, called The Loneliness of the Soul, both artists’ works are brought together, displayed side by side, to show their common theme of the expression of female emotion. When displayed together, it is shocking to see how contemporary Munch’s paintings look and how traditionally Emin approaches her work; nothing in painting is more traditional, more classical, than the human form.
Edvard Munch, Crouching Nude, 1917-1919. Oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm. Munchmuseet
Displayed as they have been, they look like the work of two contemporaries, not artists separated by a century. I think this is the major contribution that this show makes to the understanding of both artists.
Edvard Munch, Seated Female Nude, 1923–1933. Watercolour, 34.9 x 26 cm. Munchmuseet.
I would have dearly loved to see this exhibition in real life, but when the 3rd lockdown was announced, in early January, the Royal Academy closed. Thankfully, the RA has acted quickly and created a beautiful, virtual tour of the exhibition, which has recently been uploaded to the RA’s website. You can find the tour here.
While nothing can ever replace the experience of wandering around a gallery in your own sequence and at your own leisure, the 20 minute virtual tour is pretty good.
Tracey Emin, Every part of me Kept Loving You, 2018.
You do get a real sense that both artists have been consumed with expressing female emotion particularly involving the suffering of depression, fear, pain, sickness and heartbreak.
Until now, my understanding of Munch has been somewhat academic but seeing his work next to Emin’s – something clunked into place – and suddenly the dry reading I’ve done about Munch has come to life.
Edvard Munch, Female Nude, 1919–1924. Watercolour, 95.2 x 60 cm. Munchmuseet.
Emin has done a rather brilliant job in choosing 18 of Munch’s works and then 26 of her own to complement them. I loved every single one of Emin’s paintings – many of them have never been publicly displayed before. They are stunningly beautiful, sad, challenging and thoughtful. I love art that demands something from me and these feel like classical paintings that ask the question of you.
Still of virtual tour.
What is even more wonderful is that the commonalities between both artists are starkly revealed by the display. The sad and challenging You were here like the ground underneath my feet painted by Emin in 2016 is a direct echo of Munch’s own watercolour painting Reclining Female Nude, painted between 1917-20.
Still of virtual tour.
Similarly, Munch’s Crouching Nude 1917-19 and Reclining Nude 1914-15 look like they were painted yesterday and are as relevant and as challenging as anything you can see in a gallery today.
Still of virtual tour.
For me, this exhibition is revelatory – it’s taken my understanding of Munch from being an academic understanding of his importance in the history of Western art to making me feel as though Munch is a contemporary artist with a point of view that is as cutting edge and relevant today as any of our living greats.
It was generous of the Munchmuseet to lend us Munch’s works – at a time when meaningful cultural experience seems like a rare luxury it’s given us something real and important to enjoy and think about. It is wonderful for the RA to share this tour for free with the public - allowing everyone with a device to enjoy this most special of exhibitions.
Housekeeping: While I think the virtual tour is beautiful - the accompanying slow, steel string David Lynch-esque guitar music can somewhat dictate the mood of the tour. If you want to be free to make your own connections, I would view the virtual tour with the sound turned down either in silence or with your own choice of music; at least, in the first instance.